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Posted: 9:00 a.m. Saturday, June 1, 2013

GOP revolutionaries push Georgia Power to embrace solar energy 

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By Jim Galloway

 Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr. has spent more than four decades in and around the state Capitol. That fact alone should automatically disqualify him as a rabid revolutionary.

And yet here he is, attempting to force real, radical change upon one of this state’s most staid and revered institutions. McDonald is the leader of a new and very Republican effort to require that Georgia Power give solar energy a chance.

The white-haired, former state lawmaker and 1990 candidate for governor serves on the five-member state Public Service Commission, which is now taking stock of the 20-year plan that Georgia Power is required to submit to the utility board. The forecast includes no new provisions for solar energy.Yet.

”I’m going to have some solar in it — significant solar. I believe I can make it happen, even if the power company is not that excited about it,” said McDonald. He’s pretty sure two more commissioners will help provide the necessary majority. A vote is scheduled for mid-July.

McDonald would like Georgia Power’s future portfolio to include 500 or more megawatts of energy generated by solar power – roughly a fifth of the generating capacity of the two nuclear power plants operating at Plant Vogtle.

That would require massive fields of solar panels – presumably installed across south Georgia, where land is cheap, sunshine is plentiful, and the imminent closing of several coal-fired Georgia Power plants is being looked upon with dread by local communities.

Currently, Georgia Power is under no PSC mandate to incorporate solar power. Too many clouds, Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Co., the parent of Georgia Power, recently said. “It’s time is not here, but we’re looking at it.”

Mark Williams, a spokesman for the utility, noted that Georgia Power has the nation’s “largest voluntary solar portfolio,” and is on its way to linking with 210 megawatts’ worth of large, medium and small solar generators.

Small potatoes, said McDonald.

“[North Carolina-based] Duke Energy has got a 1,700 megawatt energy program going on right now, and here we’re just sitting back, just diddling in the sand,” said McDonald, a former Democrat turned Republican.

One likely ‘yes’ vote for McDonald’s solar push on the PSC is Doug Everett. He said Friday he’s willing to support it – if it can be done with no upward pressure on power bills, if no new solar monopoly is created, and if the service territories of Georgia Power and other electric utilities in the state are preserved.

Meanwhile, the fight for solar has also unit

ed two erstwhile foes. Last year, an intra-commission feud between McDonald and Tim Echols became so fierce that McDonald demanded his name be struck from the utility board’s stationery. He didn’t want his name associated with that of Echols, who was chairman at the time.

At the risk of triggering your gag reflex, it is fair to say that sunshine has helped the pair patch things up. ”Tim and I have been working well together,” McDonald said.

What has caused Republicans, who last year turned solar-cell manufacturer Solyndra into the poster child for wrong-headed federal subsidies, to link arms with environmentalists and challenge the political clout of Georgia Power?

Stewardship, in part, said Echols, a self-described evangelical. But mostly economics – and a silicon glut that has reduced the cost of solar energy production by 75 percent over the last decade. (The same glut, incidentally, that doomed Solyndra.)

“The cost of solar has decreased so much in the last five years that Republicans see that solar can be deployed without a subsidy. It’s about the money,” Echols said.

In public hearings earlier this month, the pro-solar push was strongly supported by the Republican-leaning tea party movement. “We have to diversify our energy portfolio. We can no longer be dependent, and have all our eggs in one basket,” said Debbie Dooley, state coordinator of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots.

But the conservative voice that most struck Echols originated in Arkansas – a Wal-Mart executive who described the future of the 169 stores his mega-company has in Georgia.

“Their immediate goal is to have 20 percent renewable energy on their stores – it might not be solar, it might be some other kind of renewable – and then eventually to be 100 percent off the grid,” Echols said.

Georgia Power already says it has excess capacity, Echols pointed out. Should Target, Costco and other big-box stores follow Wal-Mart’s example, that could have a tremendous impact on Georgia’s most important utility company.

“That’s why I’ve asked Georgia Power to take a more friendly posture toward solar in our state,” Echols said. “I believe if Georgia Power does not do this, they’re going to suffer financial harm in the future. And it’s in all of our best interests to keep Georgia Power healthy.”

But Echols, like McDonald, doesn’t think the utility will submit quietly. “It’s going to take a policy vote by the commission to change Georgia Power’s mind on this,” Echols said.

There’s one more leg to the effort to persuade Georgia Power to embrace solar energy. Before the Legislature adjourned this spring, state Rep. Rusty Kidd, an independent from Milledgeville, introduced H.B. 657, a bill that would authorize a new solar utility – a monopoly independent of Georgia Power. Several Republicans are co-sponsors.

Kidd’s district includes Plant Harllee Branch, a coal-fired power generator owned by Georgia Power and scheduled to close next year. McDonald, Echols, and Kidd would like to see the plant and its 1,900 acres converted to solar – so at least some of the jobs associated with the generator might remain.

H.B. 657 is unlikely to pass next year – not in its current form. Georgia Power has one of the most effective lobbying forces in the state Capitol. But a substantial show of GOP support for the measure would be helpful. “The success of his legislation could bring Georgia Power to the table, which would result in something of a compromise,” Echols said.

Jim Galloway

About Jim Galloway

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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